Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
NEWARK – Amid a joyous celebration, Kentucky President Dr. Lee Todd was about to climb up a ladder at The Prudential Center and cut down a piece of the net representing Kentucky’s first Final Four appearance since 1998.
Kentucky’s 76-69 victory over North Carolina in the East Regional final secured head coach John Calipari’s third Final Four with three different schools, but first at blueblood Kentucky, winner of seven national championships.
The Wildcats will face Kemba Walker and UConn in one national semifinal Saturday in Houston, while Butler will face surprising VCU in the other.
“He convinced me that this banner won’t come down,” Dr. Todd said of Calipari.
As has been well-documented, Calipari’s previous two Final Fours have both been vacated – with UMass in 1996 and with Memphis in 2008.
Now, he has a chance to enhance his tarnished legacy by winning his first national title and Kentucky’s first in 13 years.
“To take a team that loses four NBA players and comes back with three freshmen in the starting lineup and does what he’s done now, that’s a pretty good commendation on his performance,” Dr. Todd said. “And as you see, these players develop and the quality of kids he’s got coming in next year, people will understand that John Calipari has a right to be very, very proud of how he’s coached and how he’s behaved for his whole career.”
Still, Dr. Todd didn’t shy away from the fact that he had legitimate concerns about Calipari, so much so that the school hired Billy Gillispie over Calipari in 2007 when Calipari was at Memphis.
Yet the wheel turned in 2009 the night Memphis loss in the Sweet 16, a year after Calipari and a Memphis team featuring Derrick Rose lost the 2008 NCAA championship game to Kansas.
Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart called Dr. Todd.
“I know you’ve got some concerns about Cal,” Dr. Todd recalled Barnhart saying. “He’s going to be in a hotel for three hours in Chicago. I’ve got a plane lined up in Bardstown, Ky. Nobody will know we go. And we’re gonna go hire him.”
Calipari kicked off that three-hour meeting in a Chicago hotel room by telling Dr. Todd: “It’s Notre Dame football and Kentucky basketball and I want to be at Kentucky. I want the job and I want you to ask me anything you want to ask me in order to help me get this job.”
Barnhart and Sandra Bell of the Kentucky compliance office had already vetted with the SEC and NCAA a series of questions for Dr. Todd to ask. The NCAA had come back and said they didn’t find anything irregular, Dr. Todd said.
“Those two people gave me enough confidence that I thought I’ve just got to get over a little bit of a hurdle because compliance stops at the President’s office,” Dr. Todd said.
During the meeting in Chicago, the President expressed concerns about the academic backgrounds of Calipari’s players at Memphis and Calipari’s previous NCAA investigations.
“I had some concerns about some of the players that were playing on that [Memphis] team that had gone to some of those high schools that weren’t the caliber of high schools I thought they should be,” Dr. Todd said. “In the SEC, we didn’t recruit from those schools.
“And also there was this focus around the Marcus Camby thing [at UMass] and so forth…I was concerned mostly about academics.”
“He told me that he was wanting to bring to Kentucky the kind of players that would want to be at Kentucky and Duke and North Carolina and with this conference and with the background of this university, he would go after the very top players,” Dr. Todd said.
Still, there was resistance from other factions at Kentucky.
“There were some people that expressed some concerns,” Dr. Todd said.
When Dr. Todd came to the school in 2001, the school had been under NCAA investigation for football violations and served a three-year probation that triggered the loss of 19 scholarships.
“We had a culture that I didn’t like,” Dr. Todd said. “And I’m a native Kentuckyian, a UK graduate and a professor there years ago. And I didn’t want to take any chances that would make us take a back-step toward the culture that Mitch Barnhart had developed.
“And so I thought long and hard about it.”
But the meeting convinced Dr. Todd that Calipari was the right man for the job.
“I had that conversation with him, once I looked him in the eyes and talked to him for that period of time, we were done,” he said. “I was ready to hire him.”
Calipari was introduced as the new Kentucky coach on April 1, 2009.
Almost five months later, Memphis was forced to vacate its 2008 Final Four and 38 wins that season after it was determined that Rose was an ineligible player because someone else took his SAT for him.
Calipari said in a statement at the time that he was “very disappointed and disheartened by the NCAA’s findings.”
Two years later, Dr. Todd pointed out that Brandon Knight, who scored a game-high 22 points, including a 3-pointer and 3 of 4 foul shots in the final 2 minutes, 51 seconds, is a 4.0 student.
“Most people don’t know that,” Dr. Todd said. “But [Calipari] has got some very talented students.”
Dr. Todd is aware that “everybody watches everything [Calipari] does,” but that Calipari likes working with Bell, the compliance director.
“We have one of the strongest compliance departments and he loves it,” Dr. Todd said.
Calipari himself understands the huge spotlight he’s under and knows the expectations for the head coach at Kentucky are sky-high every single year.
“Well, you’re supposed to do it at Kentucky,” Calipari said of reaching the Final Four. “The other two schools [UMass and Memphis] you’re not supposed to do it. And a matter of fact you’re supposed to do more [at Kentucky], from what they tell me.”
And now, John Calipari has another chance to do more, a chance to win Kentucky’s first title since Tubby Smith won one in 1998.
He has a chance at some redemption.
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Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.